I installed Windows 98 on Xbox Series X and played a bunch of classic PC games

0

The late 90’s were many things – but for me it was all about Pentium PCs and Windows 98. So I was pleased to learn that the DOSBox Pure RetroArch core had recently received support for the venerable operating system, which opened the door to a Series of classic PC games now running on today’s Microsoft console hardware. Quake, Half-Life, Turok: The Dinosaur Hunter, Command and Conquer… simply put, every Win98 game is now playable on Xbox Series hardware, and there’s even emulated support for 3dfx voodoo graphics.

However, be prepared for a lot of installations via a somewhat torturous process. This starts with an unusual workaround to install the RetroArch emulation system on the Xbox, which in turn is running DOSBox Pure. I used this video guide to get started without needing developer mode. Once you’ve run DOSBox Pure on your Xbox console, you’ll also need to install Windows 98 yourself. It was a surreal moment installing this 20th-century operating system on an old Microsoft console from 2020, but surely that must be the bright future Bill Gates envisioned back then… but maybe not as user-unfriendly. All software, including Win98 itself, must be obtained and loaded through RetroArch’s support for disc ISOs. I took the FTP approach to transfer these ISOs from my PC to my Xbox consoles – unfortunately the more logical Xbox optical drive approach isn’t possible.

Windows 98 on Xbox Series X and Series S – it’s real, it works, but how good is it?

You end up with a full Windows 98 OS installation on your Xbox Series console with the games fully installed, meaning you can use it like any old PC – up to the point where I scripted the embedded video this site with Microsoft Word running on my Series X, backed and supported by a resurrected Clippy himself. So from now on it’s going to be easier – with one exception. Unfortunately, RetroArch doesn’t currently support USB mice, meaning the correct stick on the Xbox controller will need to replace them. As you can imagine, using the controller as an emulated mouse is a limiting factor in ergonomics and control. I find it perfectly usable on desktop and in most first-person shooters, but it’s a pain for isometric titles and real-time strategy games.

Still, I had a lot of fun with it. In Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun, I left the game speed at the default setting and turned the scroll speed down a bit, which I actually found to be even more intuitive to play than any controller-based RTS I’ve tried on consoles, like StarCraft 64 or Command and Conquer 64. It looked and ran great with no problems with sound or full motion video playback. In a title like Turok, which was already in development for the N64 controller, the dual-stick Xbox pad felt positively overpowered by comparison, and I was shooting dinosaurs and platforms like a pro in no time.

Turok is an interesting case as it offers support for 3dfx’s proprietary Glide API, which was developed for Voodoo Graphics 3D accelerators – effectively the standard for PC gaming in the late ’90s. With that in mind, it’s great to see that DOSBox Pure comes preloaded with a virtualized 3dfx voodoo accelerator with 12MB RAM, two TMUs, and a maximum 3D rendering resolution of 800×600, and is plugged into a 2D virtual graphics card (remember if you need two graphics cards in your pc?). In terms of features – but not performance, as we’ll see – they’re effectively comparable to a Voodoo 2 graphics card, and with them you can play any Glide, Open GL, or Direct 3D title you can think of can, with all three APIs work fine in every game I’ve tested. For example, in Quake 2 you get fancy lighting and baked radiosity, just like the original. And in other games, you can enjoy those disjointed filtered textures just like the good old days.

Install Windows 98 on an Xbox Series X and live the (emulation) dream. Once you’re done, the entire operating system is at your disposal, but of course the focus is on gaming.

It’s important to stress here how this technically works, since we’re basically talking about emulated graphics hardware on an emulated Win98 operating system, which means you need to install 3dfx drivers the same way you would on original hardware – a bit of a headache as we’ve seen when compared to importing files into the system. The other important limitation to keep in mind is that everything is emulated by the Xbox Series CPU and not the Radeon graphics. Yes, that even includes the 3dfx card, so the 12TF of GPU processing power on the console is effectively dormant here. This is important because running any kind of graphics work on the CPU is difficult and usually slow.

This also means that the Xbox CPU is tasked with first emulating the hardware, then the operating system on that hardware, then the API and driver layer, which could already be quite abstracted, and finally actually rendering pixels. This is a huge stack of emulation and abstraction, on top of a workload where CPUs suck, so even a relatively powerful CPU like the series consoles’ Zen 2 cluster is heavily taxed.

The bottom line is that while the overall system is very, very fast in some respects compared to contemporary hardware, 3D accelerated graphics can struggle. To put that in perspective, Unreal runs about half as fast as a Voodoo 2 at 800×600, which is pretty much the same as an original Voodoo 1. In practice, that means 3D acceleration performance is decent, but not exactly 1998 stuff. Just as the original Voodoo struggled with titles from 1998 onwards, so does the Xbox emulation.

3dfx Voodoo Graphics is currently the company’s Achilles heel. It’s CPU emulated and much slower than real hardware. It’s roughly on par with Voodoo 1, slightly outperformed by Voodoo 2 and (as seen here) a downclocked Voodoo 3.

In terms of CPU things are completely different and this is where the Xbox excels like a champ. The emulated CPU is a nebulous Pentium that appears to run at 66MHz and also lacks MMX capabilities, making it an old and fairly slow Pentium from around 1995-1996. In reality, however, this emulated CPU is much faster than it should be. Software-based rendering in Half-Life is about twice as fast as a real 450MHz Pentium 2. To put it in perspective, the virtualized PC here has the specs of a circa 1995 Pentium, but the raw speed of something like a 1.0 GHz Pentium 3.

Basically, the graphics performance is below average compared to contemporary hardware, but the CPU performance is a significant step ahead. What this means for your Xbox Win98 experience is significantly more powerful in software rendering. So that’s the recommendation here if you want to use your Series X to revisit some classic PC games.

Many titles like RTS games don’t have 3D support anyway, so everything is fine. However, other key games like Quake 2 require you to select Software Rendering from the menu. Software mode may mean some changes to the graphics, such as: B. lack of texture filtering and no v-sync support, but I honestly love that unfiltered look, and sometimes you can force v-sync in software mode too, depending on the game at hand.

The CPU emulation is very, very fast compared to modern hardware. Performance here with in-game software rendering is more in line with a 1.0 GHz Pentium 3.

That’s the Series X experience, but what about Series S? I was curious if the emulator would run differently given the CPU requirements and how the junior Xbox loses 200MHz in speed compared to the Series X. Using software mode in Half-Life, I’ve measured an average five percent faster result with the Series X over multiple runs, which adapts well to the difference in core frequency between the two machines. However, when I turn on OpenGL to use the emulated graphics accelerator, the Series X’s lead opens up to about eight to ten percent, depending on the title. I’m wondering if the vastly different console memory bandwidth settings might have an impact here?

With that in mind, is it actually worth going through this process to revisit this classic period of PC gaming? I would say it’s a resounding “Yes!”. This era of personal computing spawned legendary games that endure to this day – and in many ways I prefer playing classic titles for their variety and core PC focus, as opposed to today’s homogenized multi-platform games. Triple-A juggernauts. Many of these games never made it to consoles at all, and many of them look and run great with software rendering – which consoles in the series do best with this setup.

However, virtualization is still in its infancy, and as much as I’ve enjoyed the experience, there are clear ways to improve it. It goes without saying that I’d love to speed up the Voodoo emulation in any way I can, while decent USB mouse support would make a world of difference. With those two elements, we would have one of the better ways to play these classic PC games today – and the only way to do it on modern consoles. Yes, there is a lengthy installation procedure, but sometimes the challenge makes the end result all the more enjoyable.

Share.

Comments are closed.